Don’t be surprised if you see Cupid’s wings drooping. The little naked god may need some encouragement this winter.
Just weeks before Valentine’s Day, the greeting card retailers Papyrus, American Greetings, Carlton Card and Paper Destiny declared bankruptcy. More than 250 stores will be closed by the end of February. If you need a card — and you do! — you’ll have to look a little harder this year.
Some analysts blame millennials for the death of stationery. After all, why send a card when you can post a romantic Instagram photo? And besides, addressing an envelope feels as arcane as making a barrel. Feel the love? Send a heart emoji.
No wonder Ophelia sings of Valentine’s Day just before drowning herself.
But hang on. The situation for romance and stationery is not nearly so bleak as you may have heard. In fact, Cupid still has a few arrows in his quiver.
Valentine’s Day remains America’s second-most-popular card-sending holiday, behind Christmas. This year, we’ll send an estimated 145 million cards — and that doesn’t even include all those puntastic classroom Valentines like “You own a pizza my heart!”
Lindsey Roy, chief marketing officer for Hallmark, tells me, “It’s not uncommon to hear the myth that millennials aren’t buying cards, but that’s actually not what we’re seeing.” Millennials account for nearly 20% of the greeting card market, and the amount they spend on cards is growing “faster than any other generational segment,” she says.
And when they’re not buying cards, millennials are making them as part of a flourishing DIY movement — or even starting up their own artisan card companies. For instance, Janie Velencia got a job covering politics for the Huffington Post, but after a couple of years, she and a friend founded the Card Bureau in 2016. Soon they were offering a series of cards with sly political humor, e.g. “Unlike the government, my love for you will never shut down.”
Not for the first time, we overestimated the triumph of electronic communication. That may be why e-cards, those brightly colored emails zipping through the ether, never really took off. “We don’t even track e-card sending anymore,” Roy says, “because it is so minuscule.”
“Minuscule” is not a word lovers want to hear on Valentine’s Day — or any day — but it makes sense that the Internet has failed us here. In a world determined to dematerialize our interactions with each other, we crave the tactile experience of an actual card — something to choose, something to personalize, something to save. We may spend dinnertime ignoring each other on our phones, but on Feb. 14, we’re still committed to an antique mode of outreach.
“For a generation of Tinder swipers and Instagram likers, there’s something romantic and almost old-fashioned about a physical, handwritten card,” says Anna Barry, a historian of 19th-century culture. “It’s both tangible and enduring. You can’t put a WhatsApp message in a keepsake box.”
The persistence — nay, revival — of Valentine’s Day cards is part of a surprising resurgence in sending our affections through the mail. “Greeting cards are a bright spot for the U.S. Postal Service,” says Peter Doherty, executive director of the Greeting Card Association. Among other things, this proves that in Washington there is an association for everything. “In the last four years, the volume of greeting cards hitting the mail room has actually been increasing.”
That’s hardly the first miracle associated with Valentine’s Day. According to legend, a 3rd-century Christian priest named Valentine healed his jailer’s daughter of blindness and sent her a letter just before he was executed. (And you thought you were running out of time!) Acknowledging an irreducible degree of haziness about that story, the Catholic Church removed Saint Valentine from the General Roman calendar in 1969, but he remains the patron saint of lovers and beekeepers, which means the classic groaner “Bee Mine!” is almost 2,000 years old.
One of the oldest surviving Valentines in English is a reminder of how complicated love has always been. Sometime in February 1477, Margery Brews wrote to her “right well-beloved valentine,” John Paston, informing him that her father still refused to increase her dowry. “But if you love me, as I trust verily that you do,” she wrote, “you will not leave me therefore.” Margery’s Valentine must have melted John’s mercenary heart because the couple eventually got married. (Note: This will not work via email.)
Valentines appeared for hundreds of years, but it was the Victorians, those same folks who “invented” Christmas, who took the holiday of romantic cards to its commercial climax. By 1854, elaborately decorated Valentines were so popular that Punch ran a cartoon showing a burdened delivery man pouring thousands of cards into a family’s coal hole on the street.
Nowadays, few of us are likely to get that many cards — or have a coal hole — but the market is still burning hot. Ironically, what saved Valentine’s Day cards might have been broadening their association beyond romance. That’s great for Hallmark and other card manufacturers, of course, but it’s good for the rest of us, too. Roy says, “More and more, we are seeing people want to share the love with other people in their lives in addition to their significant other.” Parents send cards to their kids. Women exchange Galentine’s cards with their female friends. A quarter of the people younger than 34 plan to buy a Valentine’s Day gift for their pets. (“Are you feline what I’m feline?”)
For the past 10 years, Master Penman Rosemary Buczek has helped create what might be the world’s most expensive cards. Her Valentines, offered through a boutique outfit called Gilded Age Greetings, are covered in 23-karat gold and Swarovski crystals. Regular prices run as much as $450 a piece. Her original, made-to-order cards, presented in custom-made leather boxes, can cost more than 10 times that much. Buczek has no illusions about the potential popularity of such treasures, but she knows why cards retain a special place in our hearts.
“We live with such a staccato. It’s almost like a blinking light, constantly flashing in your eyes,” Buczek laments. “To send an actual card means someone took the time to sit down and think about what they wanted to say to you.”
Of course, you don’t have to spend $450 on a Valentine’s Day card. I suspect my wife would consider such extravagance grounds for divorce. But there’s nothing old-fashioned about a few heartfelt lines written out on a piece of paper — doily optional.
You still have time. Fly.